The "Wait ’Til Next Year" refrain has become the unofficial Cleveland Browns mantra.
This year, it may actually serve the franchise well, provided the Browns’ brain trust takes the slogan to heart when it comes to quarterbacks in the NFL Draft.
The biggest mistake Cleveland can make is to panic entering the second year of a Danny Shelton-sized rebuilding job that may take another season or two, a la the Oakland Raiders from earlier this decade. The Silver and Black were adrift at the game’s most important position for two years until general manager Reggie McKenzie found his franchise signal-caller in Derek Carr.
Easier said than done, I know. But the point is McKenzie waited to take the plunge and was rewarded. He didn’t panic and reach for a first-round quarterback in a lousy 2013 draft class like Buffalo did with EJ Manuel at No. 16.
Such a decision by Bills management essentially wasted two years before it was painfully obvious Manuel wasn’t the answer.
This isn’t to say North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or other QBs generating early-round buzz entering the draft will follow in Manuel’s footsteps. But it’s proof of how far a franchise can be set back when it makes a decision based primarily on need rather than an honest evaluation of the position.
Not that the Browns need a reminder.
It isn’t just QB instability — 26 different starters and counting since 1999 — that has plagued the Browns. The new regime of de facto general manager Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson got off to an awful start last year when it traded down from the No. 2 overall pick thinking Carson Wentz would almost certainly still be on the board.
Wentz during his rookie campaign in Philadelphia quickly displayed all the earmarks of a player you’d want at the game’s most important position. Making the Browns’ decision even more disconcerting was the claim to ESPN by Paul DePodesta, a baseball stats guy curiously hired as the Browns’ chief strategy officer, that the team didn’t believe Wentz could develop into a top 20 quarterback.
Seeing that Wentz is already in that category, combined with what has so far proven a lackluster 2016 draft, it’s understandable if Browns fans are wondering whether owner Jimmy Haslam has screwed up yet again.
So far, the greenhorn billionaire who leaned on team management to draft Johnny Manziel in 2014 has resisted the temptation to make another one of the knee-jerk coaching/personnel department changes that have contributed to Cleveland’s struggles even after last year’s 1-15 record. The next step for Haslam is assuring Brown, Jackson and DePodesta, at least privately, that they will have a chance to return in 2018 regardless of this season’s mark.
The reason: in for a penny, in for a pound. Haslam also shouldn’t forget the mess the trio inherited or the reasons he felt strongly enough that it was the right pairing to clean it up.
Maybe the Browns ultimately believe Trubisky can become elite despite his reaching the NFL after only 13 college starts, and that he truly is more worthy of being picked No. 1 despite the overwhelming NFL consensus that has Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett pegged for that slot.
Maybe the Browns can parlay their second first-round pick (No. 12) into a quarterback. Or maybe Cleveland waits until atop the second round to find its QB fix in similar fashion to McKenzie with Carr.
But before making those decisions, the Browns must look toward the future. Even with an offseason spending spree, Cleveland still doesn’t have enough quality front-line players or depth for a realistic playoff push this season. Expecting an immediate contribution from members of this year’s rookie QB class is unrealistic, as well. This means the 2017 Browns will at least open the season with Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler or Kevin Hogan under center.
In 2018, the quarterback market is far more appealing. Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and A.J. McCarron (who remains close to Jackson from their days together in Cincinnati) are all set to become free agents. The Browns will have ample salary cap space to sign any of the three.
College prospects like Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen also could be within Cleveland’s reach, either through the team’s draft slot or a trade. Plus, the Browns can use the next two drafts and 2018 free agency class to assemble a supporting cast that would give a rookie a far better chance to succeed than predecessors like Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden ever enjoyed.
Looking at it that way, “Wait ’Til Next Year” shouldn’t sound as bad as it usually does in Cleveland if the Browns pass on a passer.
Alex Marvez can be heard from 7 p.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET Tuesday and Wednesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio.